The Globetrotting Joys of Grilling on Skewers

The next time you grill anything on skewers, whether you call it shish kebab in Turkish, shashlik in (formerly Soviet) Georgian, brochette in France, anticucho in Peru, sosatie in South Africa, satay in Indonesia  or chuanr in China, know that you’re probably using the most ancient cooking technique of them all.

You’ll also be adopting one of history’s most versatile methods, one that’s been used, in one century or another, to grill beef, pork, lamb, chicken, goat, fish, shrimp, scallops and just about any kind of vegetable. In the privacy of your own backyard, you can try any or all of those, and know that historically you are in very good company. Even if you want to take everyday ground beef to a step beyond burgers, forming a kind of elongated meatloaf along your skewers, be aware that that’s a classic in the Middle East as well.

We all, of course, love our food to be fresh, but the idea of cooking on skewers – stainless steel, bamboo or a branch from the nearest tree – is approximately as old as the hills. The earliest evidence of cooking this way comes to us from 790,000 years ago, in the form of clay ovens with indentations to hold food on a skewer above flames or hot coals.

That’s what archaeologists have found at Akrotiri, the Minoan settlement on Santorini from the 17th century BC. Homer writes about cooking meat on spits in “The Iliad,” and so does the author of an ancient Indian text called the “Mahabharata.”

Still, there’s a reason we associate kebabs with the Middle East, in addition to the word itself spinning through variations in Mesopotamian, Persian and Arab cuisines. Generally, grilling on skewers caught on where it was most beneficial, far from the forests of Europe that made fuel there plentiful and relatively cheap. The desert, therefore, was the most natural place on earth to cook with sticks over a short-lived fire.

The Turks picked up on the word from Arabic, even though they had a quite different language of their own, and most importantly spread the idea along with their military dominance fueled by conversion of infidels to Islam. Converting infidels into lovers of shish kebab proved a whole lot easier.

I remember years ago finding a new (to me) type of kebab in Antakya, researching the travels of the apostle Paul in the Turkish city he knew as Antioch. It was a bit like a gyro or souvlaki in Greece, with curls of shaved meat atop a long, loping piece of naan or pita bread spread with a spicy tomato sauce, blistered banana peppers and a generous sprinkle of fresh parsley. It was called Iskender kebab, named (I presumed) after Alexander the Great, who had won the battle of Issus just a few miles away.

I calculated, for the book I wrote about this trip, that Paul traveled something over 13,000 miles on his missions. He must not have sampled Iskender kebab in Antioch, or else I think he just would have stayed. 


If your grilling is in a rut after lots of outdoor cooking all summer long, you and yours will get a fresh charge out of these pan-Asian skewers. Though you can make either kind separately, why not make both together and brush each with a different Dr. Foo’s sauce. You can set them out on one large platter, or if you prefer, two smaller platters.

Bamboo skewers
2 boneless chicken breast halves
24 cherry or grape tomatoes
1 green bell pepper, cut in chunks
1 pound peeled and deveined large shrimp
1 pound smoked sausage, sliced into ½-inch rounds
½ red onion, cut in chunks
Salt and black pepper
1 cup Dr. Foo’s Kitchen Bali BBQ Sauce
1 cup Dr. Foo’s Kitchen Thai Sweet Garlic & Ginger Sauce
2 fresh limes, cut in wedges

Soak the skewers in water for 30 minutes to prevent them from burning. On one set of skewers, thread the chicken, tomatoes and bell pepper. On the other set, thread the shrimp, sausage and red onion. Season with salt and pepper. Preheat a grill to medium high after brushing grate with vegetable oil or olive oil. Grill the skewers until cooked through, probably remove the shrimp skewers before the chicken, depending on thickness of chicken. When both are done, generously brush the chicken skewers with Bali BBQ and the shrimp skewers with Garlic & Ginger Sauce. Transfer to a platter and squeeze limes over the top. Serves 6-8.

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